Thoughts On The Portable Landscape

by Dan Ryckert on Jul 21, 2011 at 06:50 AM

In my history as a gamer, I’ve always felt the need to buy almost every console and portable on day one. Sometimes this works out -- I had a blast playing SSX and Timesplitters when I bought my PS2, Call of Duty 2 with Xbox 360, or Twilight Princess with Wii. There’s usually at least a game or two at launch that keeps me busy until some other quality titles come along in the following couple of months. However, my history with portables isn’t quite as positive as my experiences with consoles.

I learned to love my DS once great titles like New Super Mario Bros. and Professor Layton came out, but the first year or so wasn’t generous in the way of quality games. I played Twisted Metal: Head-On for a couple of weeks after buying my PSP, but very few games in the system’s lifespan held my attention after that (the main exceptions being Lumines and the God of War titles).

Part of my issue with portables is one many gamers face - I don’t travel an insane amount, I don’t want to carry the system around with me everywhere, and I don’t want to sit on my couch and play a portable while I have a 360 and PS3 ready to go in the same room.

Despite being somewhat unenthusiastic about my history with portables, I still bought a 3DS on launch day and plan to do the same with Playstation Vita. With the former, I’ve found myself (as well as Reiner, Bryan, and Tim) spending more time with the StreetPass minigames than any actual 3DS titles. We enjoyed trading puzzle pieces and helping each other through the Find Mii castle, but once we collected all the pieces and discovered all of the Mii hats, there was nothing else to do.

Luckily, the launch of the eShop and Virtual Console almost perfectly coincided with the end of our StreetPass experiences. I downloaded Donkey Kong, Super Mario Land, and Link’s Awakening DX as soon as they were available, and I look forward to further offerings whether they’re re-released Game Boy games or 3D remakes of other Nintendo classics.

After burning through those titles, I caught up on some DSiWare that I had previously missed. Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, Cave Story, and AlphaBounce were fun experiences, but I realized something as I played them: I’m not using my 3DS to play 3DS games. I’m playing Game Boy games almost as old as I am and downloadable titles that I could have played on my DSi. Nothing I had been using my 3DS for required a 3DS to play, outside of the five minutes or so that I spent remembering Excitebike isn’t all that exciting.

My 3DS activity log is dominated by these older games, and the retail games I’ve put actual time into have been ports from other systems. Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition did a good job of bringing the fighting experience to a handheld, Ocarina of Time 3D made one of my favorite games of all time even better, and I’ve enjoyed my time with our preview build of Star Fox 64 3D. However, all three of these games are experiences I already knew beat-for-beat before I ever set my hands on a 3DS.

My first four months with the system have been somewhat lackluster, but I’m still not mad at myself for buying on day one. It’s for the same reason I wasn’t upset with the original DS’s rocky beginnings -- I know it’s going to get better. E3 offered glimpses of Super Mario, Mario Kart, and Luigi’s Mansion 2, and I’m interested in all of them. Smaller titles like Picross DS and Professor Layton snuck up on me in the later years of the original DS, and I fully expect the 3DS to be a similar situation.

I could have waited until this fall’s big titles to buy my 3DS, but what would I have gained? The price won’t be any lower, and I’d have missed that catch-up time with the downloadable games I’ve been playing. The wait-and-see strategy made more sense with the original DS, because it didn’t have the luxury of downloadable games or the Virtual Console. Having my DS collect dust while I tried to convince myself that games like Feel The Magic were worth buying made a lot less sense than spending time with Game Boy games and trading puzzle pieces with co-workers.

I’m not upset that I bought a 3DS on launch day, and I doubt I’ll regret the same decision when Vita launches this fall. We don’t even know the official launch lineup yet, but I know I’ll be at the store with cash in hand regardless. My disappointment with the PSP was forgotten when I tried it out at E3 and heard the extremely reasonable $250 asking price.

Granted, the PSP also made a positive first impression on me thanks to the graphics (only to disappoint me with its software library), but Vita feels different. It does look gorgeous for a handheld, but the hardware seems to be designed so much smarter than its predecessor. Having two analog sticks will make all the difference in the world, and they both feel worlds better than the PSP’s awkward nub. Its touchscreen is gorgeous, and I’m curious to see what developers will do with the touchpad on the back.

My main concern with Vita is that developers will make the same mistake they did with PSP. Too many games on that system tried to recreate console experiences, but I don’t think that’s what most gamers want out of their portables. If I’m going to play a Metal Gear Solid game, I want to be able to devote a couple of hours to it in the comfort of my living room. I don’t want to play five-minute chunks on the bus, the toilet, a doctor’s waiting room, or anywhere that doesn’t accommodate extended gameplay sessions. My favorite DS experiences have been finishing off a couple Layton or Picross puzzles before bed or burning through a New Super Mario Bros. level on a quick bus ride. I am looking forward to playing Uncharted on Vita, but I hope Sony isn’t pushing hard for every game to be so large-scale. They've talked about taking console experiences on the go, which I think would be a fantastic option. I'd love to play the narrative portions of a game like Mass Effect 3 at home, while still contributing to my progress on the go by mining for minerals on my Vita.

Bite-sized portable experiences are what make smartphone games so popular. Look at some of the more popular offerings - Angry Birds, Words With Friends, and Infinity Blade. All of those games can be picked up for a minute or two and played for full effect. In the span of two minutes, you can take down a level’s worth of pigs, rack up points with a triple-word bonus, or defeat a guard in a heated battle. They’re perfect portable experiences, and they have the added benefit of being played on something you always have with you -- your phone.

My 3DS is in my carry-on when I go on flights, and I’m sure Vita will have a spot next to it later this fall. However, they won’t be on me when I’m in a long line at the grocery store, waiting for my number to be called at the DMV, or standing around while my lunch heats up in the break room. When you add up all these little moments, I’ve probably sank more time into iPhone games than any gaming portable in the last several years.

I’m not saying that smartphone games are better portable gaming experiences. I’m simply saying that they’re better suited for portable gaming experiences. Will Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Super Mario 3DS be better games than Tiny Wings or Cut the Rope? Yes, they will. But they won’t be as readily available.

If you have the money, all three options are viable. Vita should wow you with console-quality gaming experiences, 3DS will offer novel visuals and a back catalog of Nintendo games, and smartphones will make those DMV waits more tolerable. We’re at a point in time where games are being played on the go more than ever, and I don’t see that as a bad thing. No one option is the right one, and I doubt I’ll have regrets when it comes to purchasing any of them.